Sweeping to victory as Pakistan's most popular politician, Benazir Bhutto seems on her way to becoming the first woman prime minister of a Muslim nation. Ms. Bhutto, who has risen to command the political legacy of her father, a former prime minister, scored a stunning victory in Wednesday's election. It was the country's first democratic poll in more than a decade.
After a grueling campaign launched just weeks after the birth of her first child, Bhutto trounced a coalition of allies of the late President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. As the top vote-getter, she called yesterday on Pakistan's acting President to invite her to head a new government.
But because she lacks a majority in the 237-member National Assembly, Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) could face weeks of tough bargaining before taking charge. At press time yesterday, the PPP had taken 92 of the 215 contested seats, and the anti-Bhutto Islamic Democratic Alliance had 55.
Bhutto and her rivals have 60 days from the election to build a majority coalition from more than 50 parties. Under the country's Constitution, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, a veteran bureaucrat named to head the government after the Aug. 17 death of Zia, has the power to appoint the next prime minister. However, Zia's 11-year reign left the democratic system in shambles. The legal process is murky, and it is uncertain that Mr. Khan will actually pick the party with the most votes.
If Bhutto becomes prime minister, military sources say, the jittery Army could press for retaining Khan as President as a check on Bhutto.
``The Army feels comfortable with Ghulam Ishaq Khan,'' says a former military officer with close government ties. ``He's a known quantity.''
One contender for the prime ministership may still be Nawaz Sharif, the powerful chief minister of Punjab Province, where Bhutto's party won narrowly.
Mr. Sharif, a wealthy businessman, was chosen by Zia and has close ties to establishment politicians and the Army. Sharif's influence has raised concerns among Bhutto's supporters that he could slip into power or trigger a bitter legal battle.
Two other Bhutto rivals were eliminated in the balloting - former Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junjeo and a PPP dissident, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi.
Bhutto party officials say the contest was tainted by a controversial requirement that voters carry national identity cards. The provision blocked voting among many of her supporters in rural areas, they claim.
``The decision was taken at the highest level and was done with the purpose of hurting the PPP,'' say a Bhutto adviser, Salim Zulfikar Khan. He predicts that Bhutto may not become premier for two to three months.
Coming to power will require delicate negotiations, observers say. Bhutto will have less trouble getting opportunistic politicians to jump on her bandwagon than she will satisfying such a diverse alliance.
Key to a national government is the outcome of provincial assembly elections tomorrow. That could determine whether powerful local parties are willing to join a Bhutto alliance.
``Pakistan is not known for this type of politicking,'' a Bhutto adviser says. ``People are not really sure how much to ask and take from each other.''
The election outcome is a political and personal victory for Bhutto. Educated at Oxford and Harvard Universities, she assumed control of her father's party after his execution in 1979. Riding on the popularity of the Bhutto name, Benazir's political activities brought conflict with Zia and resulted in months in prison.
After returning from self-imposed exile in 1986, Bhutto, who was wedded in a traditional arranged marriage last year, built her political power on calls for avenging her father's death. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown by Zia in 1977, and executed two years later. But after Zia died, Ms. Bhutto shed her platform of revenge and steered her party's socialist policies toward the center, to broaden her appeal and reassure the Army.
``This is a watershed election in Pakistan's history,'' says analyst Mushahid Hussain. ``This could exorcise the ghost of [former Prime Minister] Bhutto from Pakistan's politics. If [Benazir] comes to power she will have to try and heal old wounds.''